Pittsburgh Zoo named 4th best for kids

Baby animals a big hit with children

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The bevy of baby animals; sprawling Kids' Kingdom; the meerkat exhibit; even the two-story shark tank -- all of those things caught the eye of Parents magazine in ranking the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium as the fourth-best zoo in the country for kids, the magazine's special projects Karen Cicero said yesterday.

"We are so tickled about that," Dr. Barbara Baker, president and CEO of the Highland Park complex, said of the rating. "It's something we set out to do ... to really try to figure out how to become one of the top 10 zoos in the country."

The rankings, led by the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla., will be published in the May 2009 edition of Parents, which is scheduled to be on newsstands Tuesday.

"Kids just love [all the babies]," Ms. Cicero said of the many young animals ranging from beavers to elephants at the zoo.

But Kids Kingdom, with its 71/2-acre campus "one of the largest children zoos within a zoo covered by our survey ... stood out in my mind the most," she said.

She praised the "depth" of what the zoo has for kids and called the number and variety of exhibits "pretty astounding. Some of the zoos only have small petting areas. We were really looking for [them] to be much more imaginative, creative and get children interested in learning about animals. ...

"Having the aquarium there too ... that's a nice 2-for-1 bonus," Ms Cicero said in a telephone interview. "It seemed like a place where the family could spend the entire day and really not see everything.

"And we thought this was the coolest thing: the meerkat exhibit," she said of the area for the squirrel-sized mongooses from Africa. Kids can crawl underneath and pop up in an acrylic dome. "It looks like the kids are right next to the animals."

Because children "really enjoy seeing scary animals but know they can't be hurt by them," the shark tank also impressed, she said.

But subjectivity wasn't the decisive factor in the rankings.

"It came down to numbers," Ms. Cicero said.

The ranking process began with the magazine contacting all of the zoos belonging to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a trade organization. They were asked if they had a children's zoo; "if they didn't, they were eliminated," she explained. So were zoos that would be closed when the rankings came out.

That left more than 50 zoos that were sent surveys with questions focusing on such things as how many animal exhibits were in the kids section; whether the zoo has animals that "kids in particular like"; the presence of stroller-friendly paths; and restaurant and food options. The questions were composed by knowledgeable people such as "zoo experts, wildlife experts who happened to be parents."

"Each question had a certain number of points, and that's how it was done," Ms. Cicero said. "No [subjective] voting was done."

Dr. Baker said the Pittsburgh Zoo started trying to build itself into a top 10 facility in the 1990s. "After we privatized in 1994 ... that was the first step," she said.

Steps that followed included expanding Kids Kingdom from 2 acres; renovating the aquarium; and opening the polar bear exhibit. "And then we had all the babies," she said. "We just love to see baby animals. It shows our animals are happy and healthy in their environment."

The Parents Magazine Top 10 Zoos for Kids

1. Lowry Park Zoo, Tampa, Fla.

2. Brookfield Zoo, Ill.

3. St. Louis Zoo, Mo.

4. Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

5. Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, Ind.

6. San Antonio Zoo & Aquarium, Texas

7. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, Ohio

8. San Diego Zoo, Calif.

9. Houston Zoo, Texas

10. Bronx Zoo, New York City

Correction/Clarification: (Published Apr. 12, 2009) Karen Cicero is special projects editor for Parents magazine. Her employer was misidentified in this story as originally published Apr. 11, 2009 about the magazine's ranking of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium as fourth-best zoo in the country for children.

Pohla Smith can be reached at psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228.


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